Universities must embed digital for the long term

The sector has much to learn about student experiences of digital learning - but for Sarah Knight providers need to embrace the digital in the return to campus.

A survey of 20,575 university students, published today by the education and technology not-for-profit Jisc, provides a snapshot of technology in education in early 2020.

Responding shortly before and just after campuses locked down, students told us in no uncertain terms that they needed greater support to develop digital skills. Only half (51 per cent) agreed they receive guidance about digital skills, and a quarter (23 per cent) felt unable to rate the quality of digital teaching and learning on their course as ‘good’, ‘excellent’ or ‘best imaginable’.

Since then, it’s been quite a year. Digital education became, quite suddenly, the focus for all universities as they rushed to move teaching and learning online in response to Covid-19 campus closures. I hope the experiences of the 11 per cent of students that, at the start of the year, couldn’t agree that they had access to online course materials whenever they needed them, and of the 44 per cent that said they never work online with other learners, have changed. But for that to be meaningful, universities must provide ongoing support and develop digital capabilities and confidence for students as well as staff. This is not about short-term sticking plaster solutions.

Transformation, not translation

From course delivery to living conditions and social interactions, learners’ pre-pandemic expectations of university will not be met this term. But, if institutions embrace digital, students’ experiences could be richer, more supported, and more flexible.

The challenge now is to go beyond the minimum; universities still face a steep learning curve if they are to fully realise the benefits of digital tools and technologies and deliver those to students. It’s not about translation, shifting face-to-face methods into an online environment; it’s transformation, building digital into course and assessment design and the student experience.

To achieve that, universities will have to work in partnership with their students, asking questions about their digital experiences, listening to feedback, and rethinking approaches and support in response. Some of that is happening already: in the Jisc survey, 60 per cent of HE students rated the quality of support they receive to develop their digital skills as ‘good’, ‘excellent’ or ‘best imaginable’, suggesting some universities are making steps in the right direction. But more must be done: only a third (34 per cent) agree their organisation provides the chance to assess their digital skills, and 21 per cent of students say they did not discuss their digital skills either during induction, during one-to-one sessions with tutors, in lectures and classes or with other students.

An equitable experience

Now is the time for universities to look carefully at their digital offer, scrutinising how they can support students to have an equitable learning experience online compared to in person, and making sure that lectures and resources can be accessed and engaged with, regardless of the student’s location. The pace change prompted by Covid-19 is an opportunity to rethink approaches to teaching and learning, providing experiences that are more interactive, engaging and collaborative – it isn’t about replicating lectures online.

Further, we can’t assume that all students, once they leave university campus, have a secure place to study, access to the devices they need, and reliable wifi – or that they know how to use all the different technologies they’re now being asked to use in a way that will maximise their learning experience. It’s therefore crucial that they have all this on campus, yet 19 per cent of the 20,575 HE students surveyed – 3,909 people – weren’t able to say they have access to reliable wifi on campus. Institutions must urgently evaluate where they are in this digital journey and see how they can support students to become more digitally enabled and digitally capable.

The year ahead

There’s no question that this is a challenging time for universities – especially those that were at the start of their digital journey when Covid-19 first hit the UK. That’s why Jisc created a toolkit to help universities and colleges support arriving students, and worked with the NUS to build a benchmarking tool to help institutions build on their baseline offer to see what they can – and arguably should – aim for when delivering a high-quality digital experience. Only a handful of UK universities could honestly say they currently meet those benchmarks.

We’ve seen great progress in the past six months, but universities must now embed digital for the long term. There’s no going back; the student experience has changed, and while that remains a challenge, there are positives to embrace.

A webinar exploring the survey results is taking place on Wednesday 16 September, and universities can register interest in running Jisc’s Student digital experience insights surveys from October 2021

3 responses to “Universities must embed digital for the long term

  1. Lots of imperatives and blanket statements about deficit in universities’ capabilities here, but these don’t constitute a strong rationale for why universities need digital education longer term. Just to be clear, I think we absolutely do need good digital education. But we need compelling arguments for the advantages this brings our students, institutions and communities, not yet another ‘universities must catch up’ and ‘teachers aren’t good enough’ narrative.

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